Charlton AthleticChelseaSport

The Charlton Athletic gamble that paid off massively – Steve Gallen and Lee Bowyer on the loan move for World Cup-bound Conor Gallagher

It says a lot about Conor Gallagher’s impact at Charlton Athletic and Crystal Palace that both sets of fans will be rooting for the Chelsea midfielder if he gets a chance to represent England at the World Cup.

Every player needs an opportunity to shine. And Gallagher’s first chance to show what he was all about came with the Addicks.

The midfielder was 19 when he signed on a season-long loan from Chelsea in August 2019, looking to take the next stage in his development after being named the Blues’ academy Player of the Year in the campaign before.

And kick on he most definitely did with six goals and two assists in 26 appearances for Lee Bowyer’s side.

But Charlton’s head of recruitment Steve Gallen has revealed to the South London Press that initially Bowyer was reluctant to take Gallagher.

“He didn’t want Conor because of the jump between Chelsea’s U21s and Charlton, in the Championship, is big,” said Gallen. “He was our first loan signing of the summer.

“I remember speaking to Bow during the week and pushing Conor Gallagher. Bow was worried because of his age and lack of experience – of course he would feel that way. He’s a Championship manager and it was my job, I suppose, to keep pushing that along.

“We got to maybe the Tuesday or Wednesday before the first game of the season, Blackburn away, and I said to Bow: ‘We need to make a signing’. I don’t mean that just anybody would do, but everyone -including the fans, players and staff – were a bit flat and concerned we hadn’t brought more players in.

Conor Gallagher celebrates scoring
Charlton Athletic v Brentford, SkyBet Championship, The Valley, 24 August 2019

“Luckily Bow buckled. Conor came in and trained Thursday and Friday, which wouldn’t have been a long session. Conor came on as a sub and set up our second goal, which was the winner. Ben Purrington scored the first one then Conor dribbled down the line, the cross got blocked and we scored from the corner. That was it – he got in the team from then onwards.

“Everybody was shocked. I’m sure Chelsea were and I’m sure Conor’s agent was, because he was only 19 and making that jump.”

Gallagher’s first senior goal came the following weekend, a 3-1 win over Stoke City at The Valley.

Josh Cullen’s near-post corner was flicked on by Lyle Taylor and the teenager fired a first-time strike past Jack Butland.

Palace sporting director Dougie Freedman, a friend of Gallen, had asked to come to the match.

“Dougie hadn’t mentioned anyone else and after 10 or 15 minutes he turned and said to me: ‘Who is that?’. I said: ‘It’s Conor Gallagher, from Chelsea’. He said: ‘He’ll do for me’. Two years later and he signed him.

“I remember Jacko [Johnnie Jackson] saying to me that Conor would play for England. He called it early because of his running, great attitude and the fact he scored goals. He wants to score goals – there is a difference, sometimes, between someone who scores goals and someone who really wants to score goals – who is making runs in the box constantly.

Steve Gallen
Picture: Paul Edwards

“Jacko pulled me and said: ‘Steve, he is top level’. At that stage none of us knew that. Of course you don’t when they are 19 years old, even if you think they are doing well.”

Charlton had lost Joe Aribo after their League One play-off final win. The academy product opting to turn down new terms and instead sign for Rangers as a free agent.

“We didn’t have money to splash so we had to look and see who the best young players coming through were at top clubs,” Bowyer told the South London Press. “Steve used to go and watch Chelsea and Arsenal. Then his agent put him to us.

“We watched clips on him and we had to make a quick decision. Everything we saw on the clips meant he suited the way we played. We needed an energetic midfielder, we’d just lose Joe, and someone who could carry the ball, get in the box and score goals.

“He ticked all the boxes. Was it a slight gamble because it was his first loan? Yeah, I think it was. But once he arrived he fitted in straight away. It was a gamble that paid off for us.

“I think there was one other club, maybe Wigan, who were interested in him at the time but I know his agent and he’d seen us play the season before and felt we’d suit him.

Charlton Athletic v Shrewsbury Town SkyBet League One, The Valley, 13 March 2021

“He felt Conor needed a bit of guidance and it would be a perfect to play under me. He told me I’d love his work-rate and attitude.”

Bowyer had played in the same area of the pitch and had a top-level career – just shy of 400 Premier League matches as well as reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League and UEFA Cup with Leeds.

“Living at home would’ve helped – being a London boy,” said Bowyer. “But it was also the fact we played out from the back. He could receive the ball in tight areas. He was very clever in the positions he would put himself to receive the ball.

“And he had so much energy. His work-rate was unreal. That was big on my side – to have someone who works hard to win you the ball back.

“In the beginning, like all youngsters nowadays, they just want to score the perfect goal from the edge of the box. It was getting him to believe in going that extra 10 or 15 yards to get into the box to get on the end of crosses.

“The Fulham goal is the perfect example. That was the one for me – now you’re taking on board what we’re saying. He scored a good goal from outside the box against Brentford but he took it a step further by keep breaking into the box and scoring from in there.

“We had to be careful because he was a young player and you didn’t want to just run him into the ground – especially when before that Christmas we had a few injuries – Josh Cullen and Lyle were out. So he became one of our main players at such a young age, then we were blending in our U23s because it was where we had to dig to, to fill the team. At the point Conor was guiding everyone.”

Unfortunately an unwanted byproduct of the quality of his form and impact for Charlton prompted Swansea City to move for him the following January.

East Street Investments, who never obtained formal EFL approval for their ‘takeover’ of Charlton during a chaotic period that eventually threatened the future of the club, were unable to increase the percentage of Gallagher’s salary they were paying.

“I still keep in contact with the lad now and I don’t think it was his decision to go,” said Bowyer, whose Charlton side were eventually relegated back to League One on goal difference – only dropping into the bottom three on the final day of the campaign.

Brentford v Crystal Palace, Premier League, Brentford Community Stadium, 12 February 2022

“He was loving playing at Charlton with the lads. I don’t believe for one second that a young kid like that would say: ‘I want to go and play at Swansea’.

“His agent came to us and said there was interest, you need to go to Chelsea and try and offer them a bit more. We told that to the new people who came in and that never materialised – we didn’t offer any more. I don’t think we had any more.

“Then it became out of Conor’s hands. Swansea came in and offered Chelsea a lot more.

“We were gutted. He was our second-top goalscorer. Lyle was top and then him. It wasn’t just his goals – his attitude was unbelievable for such a young player.

“It might have played a part in why Chelsea took him away. They might have looked at our side at the time – we had hardly any players fit – and they might have thought ‘this ain’t good for him’. Chelsea have a job to look after their kids as well.

“That’s football sometimes, you just have to try and adapt.

“I couldn’t fault him in any way. Every day he trained the way he played. That energy you see from him to win the ball back on a matchday, he does that in training.

“He practises his finishing and you can tell that. A lot of young players finish training and they just walk in. He is out there saying: ‘Can we do some finishing? Can you feed me some balls in different areas? He was one who just wanted to get better and better – get higher and higher.

“It was just a matter of time. I was surprised Chelsea let him stay out on loan as long as they did because he was Palace’s best player. He would have won our Player of the Year award, as well, if he had stayed.

Picture: Paul Edwards

“If he is doing it at Palace, in the Premier League, then he is going to be playing with better players at Chelsea – no disrespect. Now he is flying. That year at Palace took him that next step.”

Gallagher won England recognition while with the Eagles. Now comes a World Cup. Another goal achieved.

“I’m really proud of him,” said Gallen. “We take a loan, that no-one had ever heard of and a few years later he is going to the World Cup.

“It’s unbelievably brilliant for the lad and it’s good for Charlton when I I’m sitting down with Jes Rak-Sakyi in the summer and clubs are desperate for him. I’m sitting there and saying to Jes: ‘Conor Gallagher came here and now he’s in the England team’.

“I can use things like – and it’s not a lie – when I try and get young players to come to us, instead of another team. It’s not always about the status of the club, it’s about the opportunities you can give and where they can land afterwards.

“Conor Gallagher landed really, really high – and that really helps me.”

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